Marian Wright Edelman—born 75 years ago in small-town Bennettsville, S.C.—was named for the great contralto Marian Anderson. The founder of the Children’s Defense Fund still lifts up her voice.
During her third appearance at the City Club of Cleveland, Edelman peppered her talk with notions that seem boiled down over the decades:
- God did not make two classes of children.
- A nation that does not stand up for its children doesn’t stand for anything at all.
- I don’t know why we don’t do what we know.
- We don’t have a money problem. We have a morality problem.
- I want black kids and brown kids to see something in their future called college, not prison.
These were no bromides. Edelman bolstered them with withering facts, expressing her four-decade bewilderment that among the 35 richest nations, only Romania has a higher proportion of its children in poverty than the United States. In 2013, 14.7 million American children—more than the population of Ohio—lived in official poverty while 6.5 million children faced the chronic hunger and homelessness of extreme poverty.
Then Edelman brought the numbers closer to home: In 2013 in Cleveland, 54 percent of its children are poor and one in four is extremely poor. Some 4,000 students this academic year in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District were homeless or doubled-up in temporary housing, said Thomas Ott, director of assignments for the district’s news bureau.
“Let’s pray and vote and stand up and fight for those children who have never been carried,” Edelman said, echoing the Baptist tradition in which she grew up.
Wearing owlish glasses, a colorful green and yellow jacket and a no-nonsense air, the children’s crusader injected humor into her preaching, reaching for principles she said were derived from Noah’s Ark: “Remember the arc was built by amateurs and the Titanic was built by experts.”
To illustrate her message, Edelman described a young Clevelander she met last month in Columbus. Born addicted to drugs, Brittany defied a grim prognosis and grew into a student who loved and excelled in school, despite an absent father, a cocaine-addled mother and her own lupus. For ten years Brittany’s grandmother provided a loving home for Brittany, her older sister and brother until their mother became sober and regained custody. This spring, Brittany is graduating from John Hay High School of Science and Medicine determined to become a doctor.
“I believe so strongly we don’t have the right to give up on any child,” Edelman said, as some listeners wiped away tears.
Edelman acknowledged her long-time friends, Dolly and Steven A. Minter, for whom her City Club lecture was endowed. Their daughter Robyn Minter Smyers, partner-in-charge of the Cleveland office of Thompson Hine, introduced Edelman, calling her “a role model and a profound source of inspiration.” Minter Smyers interned for Edelman in Washington, D.C. a quarter century ago. A bit earlier, in 1970, another former Children Defense Fund intern began making her mark: Hillary Rodham.
Here are the remaining lessons Edelman derives from Noah’s Ark:
- Don’t miss the boat. (The U.S. military now disqualifies 75 percent of applicants for illiteracy and prior imprisonment.)
- We are all in the same boat.
- Plan ahead. (“It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.”)
- Stop being timid.
- For safety, travel in pairs, or better yet, in community.